Gina Iniong-Araos was already known as a pioneer of combat sports in the Philippines when she competed in the 31st Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi last year, as part of the national kickboxing team.
A member of the famed Team Lakay, the 33-year-old Iniong-Araos blazed a trail for female fighters when she signed with ONE Championship in 2017. Nicknamed "Conviction," Iniong-Araos owns victories over the likes of Natalie Hills, Jihin Radzuan, and Asha Roka.
During the SEA Games in Hanoi, Iniong-Araos wrote another triumphant chapter in her career when she won the gold medal in the 60-kg division of the women's low-kick in kickboxing. She defeated Jaiteang Warapron of Thailand in the final.
It was the second SEA Games gold medal for Iniong-Araos, having dominated the 55-kg category in the 2019 edition of the biennial event in Manila. But this medal was more significant, because it marked her return to action after becoming a mother.
"Medyo nag-alanganin po ako noon. Kaya ko ba?" Iniong-Araos said of her mentality heading into the SEA Games.
She did not lack support from her teammates and coaches, who welcomed her back into the national team after she gave birth to her daughter, Gianna Rose, in November 2020. But internally, Iniong-Araos won't deny that there were some doubts.
"Meron 'yung tiwala ko sa sarili ko, kaso hindi po 100% na kagaya dati. Kasi siyempre, nanganak po ako," she told ABS-CBN News.
Iniong-Araos stayed active throughout her pregnancy, which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. She joined her teammates in training over Zoom, and kept her coaches updated about her workouts. She trained even as her due date approached.
Nonetheless, it wasn't until she won the gold medal in Hanoi that Iniong-Araos felt her full confidence in herself return.
"'Yung result ng laban, doon po bumalik 'yung confidence ko. Doon ko napatunayan na kaya ko pa talaga," she said. "Noong nag-medal po ako, bumalik po ulit 'yung tiwala ko sa sarili ko."
Her victory was a statement. After giving birth, Iniong-Araos heard plenty of suggestions that she should step away from combat sports, and instead focus on her family with husband Richard Araos.
"Noong noong nanganak po ako, halos negative na rin 'yung maririnig mo, kasi siyempre, nanganak ka na. Alagaan mo na lang 'yung anak mo," she recalled.
Rather than listen to those suggestions, Iniong-Araos showed that she can succeed on both fronts -- as a martial artist, and as a mother.
"Sabi nga nila, kung gusto mo 'yung ginagawa mo, i-push mo lang," said the kickboxer, who admitted that the negative messages from other people only served to motivate her to return to her sport.
"'Yun ang naging inspirasyon ko po, na gusto kong patunayan na kaya ko pa po, kahit nanganak po ako. Kasi oo nga po, iilan lang po 'yung mga mother na nakakabalik sa sports, lalo na po sa sports ko kasi combat sports po 'yan," said Iniong-Araos.
"Kaya ang saya-saya ko po noong hindi po sila nag-dalawang isip sa akin na ilaban noon sa SEA Games. 'Yun po kasi 'yung unang laban ko pagkapanganak ko."
Iniong-Araos continues to juggle motherhood and her combat career. She is now training for the 2023 SEA Games in Cambodia, where she will compete in the 55-kg division of the women's low kick. Her daily routine involves a morning jog, after which she returns home to take care of her daughter. In the afternoon, she trains again, and then it's back to mama duties for Gianna Rose in the evening.
Sometimes, she brings the toddler with her while she works out.
"Noong isang araw po, wala pong nagbantay kaya dinala ko po siya sa oval, kaya takbo ng takbo," Iniong-Araos says.
She is grateful that her sisters are there to help her take care of her daughter, and that they continue to support her in her combat sports career. As early as now, Iniong-Araos assured that her daughter will have her full backing should Gianna Rose also decide to pursue a career in martial arts.
"Kapag nakikita niya 'yung laban ko, pinapanood kasi namin kung minsan, ginagaya niya rin at nagi-smile-smile siya," Iniong-Araos said.
"Kung gusto niya po, susuportahan ko po kasi mahirap naman po 'yung hindi niya talaga gusto ay ipagpipilitan mo 'yung gusto mo sa kanya. Pero parang nakikita ko rin naman sa kanya, kasi laging sumisipa, sumusuntok. Nakikita ko na," she adds.
Even if her daughter does not end up following her footsteps, Iniong-Araos' legacy is already secured from the number of women that she inspired -- and her status as a pioneer of the sport continues to fuel the veteran fighter.
"Sa akin po ang masasabi ko, gawin po nila 'yung talagang gusto nila, 'yung hindi po sila napipilitan. Iba kasi 'yung napipilitan ka doon sa gusto mo. Tapos, magtiwala lang sila sa sarili nila," Iniong-Araos said of her message to aspiring fighters.
This article is part of the Amazing Women series of ABS-CBN News this month of March, featuring stories of select women who are making a mark in their respective fields. March is National Women's Month in the Philippines